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Downtown Insecurity?

Eugene’s troubled downtown security system

For five years, Eugene’s Downtown Public Safety Zone exclusion ordinance allowed police to bar members of the community from the city center, without due process. About half the people excluded during that time were homeless.

The ordinance ended last week, but its broader imperative — clean up the retail environment at all costs — lives on. Two private security companies in Eugene, which act as extra muscle for more than 100 businesses spanning some 50 city blocks, take dubious shortcuts to achieve their goals, and have little oversight. I patrolled for Advanced Security, Inc. (ASI) in late 2012 and for the Downtown Guides in early 2013, before becoming a writer for EW.

The Downtown Guides, known as “the red hats,” patrol the streets and control a surveillance camera network pointed down Broadway, while ASI pedals across midtown, packing firearms, dressed conspicuously like the police. Eugene needs a more compassionate way to help the homeless and downtown than simply chasing people away. Both firms are paid to deter crime, but many see their implicit task as to systematically displace the homeless. 

“I guess it functions in its own dysfunctional kind of way,” says Heather Marek, a social scientist with a master’s degree in Conflict and Dispute Resolution from the UO. Marek, who reported on the exclusion zone to the City Council, says, “They’re able to get people out of their hair, but it doesn’t have any long-term benefit.”

 

 

It’s All Business

Post-exclusion zone, the Guides’ line-of-duty interactions, or contacts, will continue to consist significantly of “sleepers,” who just get moved on in blasé fashion. Eugene Police Department (EPD) offers businesses a Trespass Letter of Consent program, which empowers police, and derivatively appears to empower security officers, to expel people from private property on permanent consent. Across 11th Avenue, the midtown district is patrolled by ASI officers atop mountain bikes who roust “transients” wholesale using the letters as authority. Marek says the trespass program “criminalizes basic survival.”

The Guides have only six employees and ASI’s Eugene branch has about 25. Each business association contract provides for a two-person team. That means four officers, who, at peak times of the year from what I have seen, could exceed 100 contacts just from homeless trespassers, per week. Most are not distinguished from dangerous criminals.

Dave Hauser, director of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce and supervisor of the Guides, says, “There are layers of public safety challenges downtown. There are hardened criminals. It’s easy to look at it and say it’s a homeless issue, but it’s more complex than that.” In May, when a homeless, mentally ill man threw a chair through the front window of a popular downtown restaurant, Guides responded, getting between the man and the front door, as he threatened to burn the place down. “I’ve lived here for 21 years, and the notion that the Guides are there to gentrify the downtown is absurd,” Hauser says. “We have problems with harassment. People just want to operate their businesses.”

Guides manager Steve Scarborough says, “It doesn’t matter what makes [a client] uncomfortable. We just provide the service.”

With that service, for every one danger averted, there are usually several innocent people wantonly relocated. No one would define property destruction as speech, but the Guides also chase people off for reading aggressive poetry and other things protected by the First Amendment on public property. “A lot of people who participate in gentrification aren’t aware of it,” Marek says. “It’s very subtle. You can say you target people based on behavior, not income, but certain people engage in negative behaviors in public spaces by virtue of being poor.” 

George Brown, city councilor and owner of downtown business The Kiva, says his staff calls the Guides when there is a problem, but Brown refuses to sign a trespass letter. “I never saw the need for it,” he says. “If police see somebody committing a crime on my property, they’re going to intervene regardless.”

Unless The Kiva calls, sleepers on Brown’s property aren’t to be awakened. Brown also leaves his Dumpster unlocked at night for sadly obvious reasons. He says forcing people off the property isn’t his style, but it’s often necessary. “People should be able to go from their car in the parking lot to the front door of a business without being hassled.”

According to Jeff Musgrove, owner of Musgrove Family Mortuary — directly across the street from The Kiva — the situation in midtown is a little more tense. “We’re in a no man’s land,” he says of law enforcement south of downtown and west of campus. “I came in one morning and there was a van parked against the wall and a guy in between the van and the wall. I said, ‘You need to leave.’ He said, ‘I’m not causing a problem.’ I said, ‘You need to leave. You’re making me nervous.’” The day before, several cars had been broken into in Musgrove’s lot — windows smashed, valuables missing. Musgrove is the board president for Midtown Business Associates (MBA), which hires ASI to patrol its district. “That letter of trespass is a black and white document,” he says, “a mandate.”

According to Brian Henson, a manager at Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, “A private security provider really has no more authority than a private citizen.” That is to say the letter of trespass authorizes police to intercede — no one else. Guides and ASI officers will simply point to a “NO TRESPASSING” sign and people will leave. No one calls their bluff.

 


The Downtown Guides. Manager Steve Scarborough (left).

 

Us and them

The Guides’ operation has recently expanded into a surveillance program, through which a growing number of businesses downtown have pointed web-cam-like devices out to the street, linking them all back to a computer in the Guides’ office. Guides can flip through different views and monitor all of Kesey Square/Broadway Plaza and a good deal of the periphery. The program is facilitated and maintained by Savvy Duck Computer and Base Conversion, a web developer.

“It’s not my favorite thing,” says Stacy Bierma, owner of Harlequin Beads and Jewelry and board member of Downtown Eugene, Inc. (DEI), which determines the Guides’ mission. “I have mixed feelings about civil rights versus security,” she says. “It’s a tough call.”

Bierma says that the program shouldn’t be seen as invasive because it can hold the Guides accountable as well. But it’s unlikely that the average citizen could ever attain footage, and the software has already been abused. A Downtown Guide installed it on his smartphone and bragged to me that he could watch the plaza from the comfort of his home. 

“I totally trust Steve. He hires good people,” Bierma says of Guides’ manager Scarborough. “I’ve seen their logs. It’s breaking up fights, things like that.” Plenty of things never make the logs though, in my experience, or have deliberately minimal information. Bierma sees what Scarborough wants her to see. The Guides may respond to calls and make board members feel safe, but they self-generate the majority of the contacts. In their down time, the Guides sometimes treat even the most benign subjects with contempt.

In April, Guides stumbled upon 21-year-old Marissa Pugh in an alley downtown. She sat silently, returning our questions with a thousand-yard stare. My partner called the police, asking them to come cite her. With officers en route, Pugh mumbled that she was suffering from a head injury and could not think clearly. What should have been a wellness check turned into a charge of second-degree trespassing, which holds a maximum penalty of $500 or 30 days in jail. No consideration was apparently given to her safety or security.

The details of this encounter were not recorded, so Bierma could never have known that it happened on her own property. Scarborough declined to comment on this, despite being cleared by Hauser, who says, “While I am responsible for supervising the Guides, I don’t patrol with them.” This begs the question of whom the Guides answer to, except for themselves.

Scarborough is notably cynical about his role, and I’ve seen his employees collect artifacts from off the street and decorate the office with inside jokes. Newspaper clippings are inked over with lewd comments, mocking alternative lifestyles. “You could say that the Guides are impacted by the environment in which they operate,” Hauser says.

 


Advanced Security Inc. officers. The officer on the right is a senior patrolman, carrying a firearm.
The officer to the left is a trainee.

 

A badge and a gun

ASI isn’t quite Big Brother, but it has its own issues. “Most if not all of the midtown contacts are homeless, or appear to be,” says a former employee assigned to the midtown bicycle patrol, who asked simply to be called “Benny” due to his remaining ties to the industry. Homelessness is such a recurring theme that until recently, a photo of a homeless woman digging through trash was set as the wallpaper for a mobile phone dedicated to the patrol.

Musgrove says that, like the Guides, “The contacts that ASI reports are mostly self-generated.” According to Benny, the job was “patrolling a prescribed area and determining whether people are trespassing.” At no point in a lengthy explanation of his duties is there mention of encountering real criminals. For a petty thief or anyone scanning midtown for a score, officers on squeaky bicycles emitting radio static and maintaining a conversation aren’t exactly hard to avoid.

Benny calls the overall attitude of the patrol “menacing,” adding that officers had “purposefully antagonized homeless people to make sure they didn’t return to the area.” One homeless man says ASI officers told him, “Go two blocks north [into Guides territory] and you won’t see us again for the rest of the day.” Regulars who gravitate around midtown confirm this is common but ask not to be identified, fearing they will lose services for causing a fuss. Benny says he didn’t feel bad about his attititude because he was grossly outnumbered and barely making ends meet himself. “I was getting less than a dollar above minimum wage,” he says. “That low pay correlates with a low quality of service.”

When branch manager Marlin Otto hired him, Benny says, Otto declared, “We bridge the gap between the private security industry and the police force.” Otto, who declined multiple requests for comment, lets ASI’s midtown officers optionally carry firearms, unlike Scarborough’s team, which carries only pepper spray and batons.

“When you’re talking about the difference in training,” Henson says, “you’re looking at night and day between a private security provider and a police officer.” An EPD officer attends a 16-week basic course, while an ASI officer has to take only 36 hours of training to tote a handgun. Due to administrative lag, most officers don’t carry for at least two months from hire, but still, the potential exists for a Zimmermanesque mishap.

“Private, armed guards patrolling public property — alleys and sidewalks? That seems more like a job for police,” says Brown, whose City Council ward fully encompasses the Midtown Business Associates. “That definitely gives me pause.” 

In a 2005 Eugene City Council hearing, Otto was questioned about the navy slacks and jackets and metallic badges that his officers wear. He underscored that “his company had no interest in impersonating law enforcement” and that it was “imperative they be immediately recognizable as security personnel.”

City code was amended to forbid appearance “substantially similar to the official sworn officer’s uniform,” where it is “reasonably likely that a citizen will believe the person wearing the uniform is [a policeman].” Otto changed nothing and the issue was forgotten. Brown says when he last encountered the MBA patrol, “It was hard to tell. Until they went right by me, I thought they were the cops.” If a downtown business owner can’t tell the difference, how can a psychologically compromised person?

 


Dave Hauser

 

The way it is

Musgrove says that he’s never heard a complaint about ASI and that they are cordial with all of their clients. Knowing that, like Hauser, he isn’t there to see most of what goes on, Musgrove says, “If we used another firm, the mission is still the same. If it’s not ASI and it’s someone else, they might bring their own set of issues.” He says he can’t afford for elderly, bereft patrons to arrive at his establishment and find a combative individual sprawled out on the steps for the day.

One of ASI’s most frequent stops is First Christian Church, which, as of Nov. 15, is open as a shuttle location and service site for the Egan Warming Center. One of six locations, each host to 20-30 volunteers, the church provides shelter when overnight lows dip under 30 degrees. ASI patrols the church during that process, keeping a distance, and as volunteers say, is respectful of the process.

One ASI employee says that Otto is known to address his employees, when it starts getting cold out, not to be overbearing to the homeless. “It’s not their fault,” he says. Otto has also been scrutinized by his officers for setting his recycling out early for “transients” to sift through. 

Pastor Dan Bryant has never had a reason to second-guess ASI’s operation at First Christian. The courtyard of the church fills up fast in the middle of the night, regardless of the temperature. People drink, get in fights, endanger themselves and others. Bryant can’t allow it, so ASI enforces his letter of trespass. As president of Opportunity Village Eugene, Bryant was told by the city that he needs a security response available for the site. Naturally he chose ASI, and he says, “The villagers there welcomed the idea.”

First Christian has a congregation of only 250 people who, Bryant says, facilitate a network of charity that benefits as many as 10,000. Musgrove personally donated a housing unit to Opportunity Village and his wife volunteers 20 hours a week at Eugene Mission. Both men say they feel like the whole system is broken, and they are honestly doing their best.

 

 

Not all there

“We would encounter people who had mental health issues and we weren’t equipped to deal with it,” Benny says. “We just treated them as we did any other trespasser.”

At Saturday Market and now Holiday Market, you can find a T-shirt that says, “Eugene — We’re all here, because we’re not all there.” That humor is lost on many in our community who know that there is a close relationship between homelessness as a public safety issue and mental health concerns, often tied to substance abuse. As Bryant says, “There are a lot of folks who self-medicate to deal with the ‘demons,’ so to speak.”

Chuck Gerard, coordinator at White Bird Clinic, who oversees CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Street) says, “If there’s a dispute between a homeless person and a business, we’ll go in and try to solve it.” CAHOOTS responders are trained in de-escalation techniques beyond police and beyond private security. “It’s not their job to help anyone. It’s not what they’ve been hired to do,” Gerard says of ASI, whose officers are not welcome on clinic property.

Scarborough has long complained that the Behavioral Health Unit or “Johnson Unit” at Sacred Heart Medical Center, University District, is where a lot of people need to go, but they can’t. “We focus on building a rapport ahead of time to effectively handle the acute situations when they arise,” he says. 

“Individuals in a crisis situation typically turn to the Johnson Unit,” says Anne Williams, a spokesperson for the hospital system. “We’ve seen the demand for our behavioral health services grow significantly in recent years.”

For the Guides, or anyone who has been frozen at the sight of someone’s public freak-out, relief is here. The Johnson Unit, in October, began a $13.6 million project, which includes a larger facility for in-patient mental health treatment and enhanced emergency intake. “The investment comes at a time when many providers in the state are reducing or eliminating services,” Williams says.

This was accomplished in part by the Sacred Heart Foundation, which receives donations from local organizations and individuals. Contributions to the fund can be earmarked for behavioral health. Among last year’s donors were six of 11 DEI board members or their businesses, including Bierma, as well as Musgrove and dozens of other members of the two business associations.

But not every homeless person just needs the right meds and they’ll be fully reintegrated. That doesn’t put a roof over their head or respect their personal story.

 

 

Soft power

Organizations like St. Vincent de Paul and First Christian Church are stretched ever thin. Whose job is it to make the SLEEPS camps obsolete? “It’s all of our jobs,” Bryant says. “There’s the extreme conservative view that government shouldn’t do charity work. Churches and nonprofits should. Well, there isn’t enough charity to address the problem.”

Brown says one solution is to “Get the federal government to provide much more generous HUD grants.” Still, back to the theme of mental health, Brown adds, “You can’t just stick people in a room and think everything’s going to be OK.” 

While people remain on the street, how about replacing the iron fist with a velvet glove? Community advocates have forwarded the idea that these two private security firms, who “shepherd” the homeless, should just be replaced by more CAHOOTS responders. Brown seems receptive to the idea. Bryant smiles, but immediately squints. Could it be that easy? 

“I appreciate the idea because it’s moving away from force and toward intervention,” says Gerard, who has, in partnership with Lane County Behavioral Health Services, applied for newly available state funding that would expand CAHOOTS. 

With 20 responders on the roster, working seven days a week, 16 hours a day, from two vans, CAHOOTS would double in size if the funding went through. The expansion would actually be to serve Springfield and the unincorporated areas around Eugene. Still, it begs a debate over how business interests could better respond to their own fears.

The Downtown Guides’ operation enjoys overwhelming support — something like 80 percent of the business and property owners in the Downtown Service District. City code demands that businesses downtown pay into Downtown Eugene, Inc., but DEI doesn’t have to use the money for the Guides. The MBA doesn’t have to use ASI. They could flip the script with all of this private policing if they believed there was another solution.

Until someone comes up with a more compassionate plan, the Guides and ASI are going to be making their rounds, waking people up, telling them to go somewhere else — anywhere but here. This is a process that allows the police and the city to ignore the scope of the problem. One needn’t travel far to see the results. Marek doesn’t have all the answers, but her gut tells her, “The more included people feel, the less alienated they are, the less likely they are to do things that are anti-social.”

Opponents of expanding services to the homeless, the mentally ill, the substance-dependent, see things in terms of tax burden, but Bryant says, “Consider the cost to the community, in terms of health and wellbeing. It’s a basic measure of a just society — the extent to which you provide for ‘the least of these’ people.” 

 

To learn more, donate or volunteer, visit:

Egan Warming Center eganwarmingcenter.com

Opportunity Village Eugene opportunityvillageeugene.org

CAHOOTS whitebirdclinic.org

Sacred Heart Foundation peacehealth.org